Monday, February 4, 2013

The Passing of Carl F. Becker

Carl F. Becker 1920 - 2013

On the morning of January 30, 2013, Carl F. Becker went to his eternal reward.  Carl Becker was my teacher, inspiration, colleague, friend; the earth seemed to shudder as when giants of the forest tumble home.     

Numerous tributes
have recounted his achievements as a violin maker, restorer, and expert.  To those lucky enough to have studied with him, he will always be remembered as the most inspiring man we ever knew.  During much of the 20th Century violin making was a barren desert. Carl Becker, with unflagging perseverance and industry, worked with his family to produce nearly 800 instruments of consistently supreme quality, the equal of the old Masters.

To any apprentice of the early 1970s like me, Carl was a titan who wore his greatness lightly.  His openness and humility never ceased to astonish; he invariably listened with attentive seriousness to the opinions of others, even us youngsters.  Yet beneath his unassuming exterior there was a passion for excellence and achievement that tried the souls of his assistants.  His skill with tools was legendary and his technique was seamless as an egg.  His ability to execute the most challenging tasks with the graceful elegance of a ballroom dancer was dazzling.  His knowledge and experience were unparalleled; four years working with Carl Becker were all spent at double-time, trying to soak up all the wisdom he was so keen to teach.  Only ten years after starting my own studio did it seem his lessons were fully integrated into my work. 

Carl Becker was also a generous and kind man.  His client roster included all the greats, and once I accompanied him to hear Nathan Milstein in recital.  We went backstage afterwards but were blocked by a huge crush of admirers, and eventually an assistant announced that Mr. Milstein, then in his 80s, would be leaving.  As he entered the hallway in which we were waiting, Carl grabbed my hand, thrust forward through the crowd and hailed him with a prodigious bellow, “Mr. Milstein!”  He turned, gave a gesture of pleasurable recognition and Carl, while pushing me forward, called in that same foretopmast voice, “I have somebody I want you to meet, my assistant, Charles Rufino.”  A nodding salute passed, we looked into each others eyes and shook hands for an instant, then he was borne away by the press of the crowd.  Carl gave me a wink and a smile and we went home, happy for our different reasons.

Shortly before his passing I  traveled to see him.  He spoke with delight about two violas he was making.  Later he remembered another point he wished to make and said, with a phrase he often used, "Now I would just like to go back to those violas we were discussing..." and with great earnestness he explained some design changes and how keen he was to hear the result when the instruments were done.  That day was not to be, and now those violas will be completed by his children, who carry on the Becker tradition.

He lived a life of great honor, with the admiration of the entire world.  May we all do so well.  Rest in peace, Carl.

Carl F. Becker and Charles Rufino, Chicago 1982

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Purfling Tryouts

  One good thing about getting older is getting smarter.  So rather than jumping willy-nilly into purfling my new cello, I took some scraps of the new purfling and tried it out on a scrap of maple.  You can see the purfling strip sticking out at the top, and some of the empty groove is lower in the photo by the gouge.  My purfling cutter is set to a good distance in from the edge and the width of the knives is fine.

Purfling has a number of functions, but its primary one is adornment- by reinforcing the outline it makes the instrument so much more beautiful.   Balancing the distance in from the edge, the width of the strips, and the size of the corners is part of what make a nice looking corner.  These plus the artistry of slicing the strips so they join into a seamless point are reliable indicators of the maker's skill.

The channel cut by the gouge after the purfling is is is the first step in the "edgework" but at this point everything is still square.  Now I have learned what I wanted to know and now am ready to work on the real thing. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Shop Is As Dirty As A Smithy. Must Be Making Purfling

Reducing Purfling to Thickness
Purfling is an 3-layered inlay that runs parallel to the edge of the violin.  While theories about about its acoustic properties, I believe it started out as a decorative component of the instrument.  Purfling provides a visual focus, reinforcing the outline of the body, and is a test of the skill and artistry of the maker.  This will become much clearer in future post when I actually purfle the cello.  But today is not about artistry, rather the skill involved in reducing wood into exceedingly thin sheets suitable for purfling.

Purfling Ready For Use
Purfling is made of three thin sheets of wood black-white-black like an ice cream sandwich.  They are glued up and sliced into thin strips which are inserted -on edge- into a groove cut into the instrument.  Many people are fascinated to learn that the black lines are not painted on.

I am making fresh purfling for the new crop of cellos out of some lovely fresh white poplar and pearwood dyed black.  (Pearwood is naturally a mocha color so it takes the black stain very well, using an ancient 3-step process I learned many years ago in Germany.)
Stradivari used these woods in his purfling and I like the historical touch even though it is not essential.  And they sure are pretty, especially the beautiful poplar I got from Dave at B&B Rare Woods in Golden, Colorado.  If you ever need some beautiful veneers, he's your man. 

Thicknessing the Pearwood
I suspect Dave must find it odd that I want the opposite of what every one of their other customers wants.  The plainest wood, with absolutely no figure or flame.  The photo shows why- I have to thin it up much more after it arrives.  This is pretty tricky as the wood becomes so thin that it can tear like paper. 

I scrape and plane down the black from about 30 thousandths of an inch (.030") to 18 thousandths.  For the sake of comparison, an average business card is 11 thousandths.  This job fills the shop with black shavings and makes such a tremendous mess that I will be finding this detritus for months around the shop.  It is as messy as a blacksmith's shop.

Checking the Thickness

Last time I did this job I splurged and bought a nice Starrett micrometer designed for this kind of work.  It gets a lot of use when I am doing this job and apart from making the job a lot easier, it is a beautiful piece of precision American engineering.  It gives me a good feeling to admire the hand work of others.  It is also gratifying to see proof of what we can accomplish in the country.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Titian Helps Me Start a Cello Scroll

As a young maker, my penchant for picking up another task before completely finishing the current one would trouble me.  "This is silly.  A serious artist should finish each task in order."

This tiresome and pestilential belief was finally banished from my studio after learning that Titian would lay paintings aside for months if he felt like it.  Taking the time to deliberate, to reconsider, to take a break and get refreshed is what makes the difference between art and commerce. 

This, I tell myself, is why it is perfectly appropriate for me to pick up that lovely slab of maple that will become the neck and scroll of my cello.  

A dainty neck and scroll hide wi
At 20 x 6.5 x 2.5 inches and nearly 7 pounds, it is almost a menacing presence in the shop, and requires careful handling.  Delicate instrument parts could easily be crushed, and the razor sharp edges of scroll blocks have given me more than one cut.

Artifact from a different world
Generally I prepare sets of wood for instruments ahead of time.  Cleaning off the rough exterior reveals the beauty of the flame and lets me fine-tune the alignment of the grain for tone as well as stability. 

Dating each piece is useful and sometimes surprising how long it has been and how much the world has changed.  No Google either.

Scroll and neck template
The next step is to trace the template onto the scroll block.  Stradivari used templates of heavy paper, so that is good enough for me.

See-through Mylar at the head allows me to choose the grain that will look best on the pegbox and scroll.

After being sawn out
Most of the block is not used on this cello but will yield a violin and perhaps a viola scroll.   

After cleaning up the saw marks, the widths of the head and neck are marked and the final shape begins to emerge.  But that will be an entry for another day.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Like the first day of school

Backs for 2 more cellos with a layout template and jointing plane.
Some days I take a break and this is one of them.  The demands of fussing about arching have tired me mentally, so I am preparing wood which for a few new cellos and doing a some center joints.  A few months ago I poked around the attic over my studio, where my wood is frozen every winter and baked every summer, and brought a few sets of wood down into the heated area to let it sit.     Today I am deciding how the raw wood will be prepared for making into an instrument.  I will fuss a good bit with each piece, trying to align the grain, flame, and split for best tone and visual beauty.  I started thinking about the layout last night and changed my mind several times before making my final choices this morning.

I love this job- it is like the first day of school, full of excitement and promise, with pleasant memories chiming in.  Memories of a 1997 purchasing trip; jet-lagged and driving a rented car to Bavaria while big BMWs passed me at 100+ MPH on the Autobahn.  Clambering over huge piles of wood to sift and select what I wanted...anxiety of its safe arrival, stacking and storing it.  All these years later finding these old friends and dreaming about what a beautiful instrument it will make.  Beats working.

The decisive physicality of this work- a joint is either right or it is not- will be a nice counterpoint to my recent occupations.  What Hazlitt called the "inefficacy and slow progress of intellectual compared to mechanical excellence."   Time for some mechanical excellence.   

This cello back has been through summer heat, winter cold, and a small flood since being purchased in 1997.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Refining an arching is like playing in tune.

The tools used to refine an arching.
Refining an arching seems like such a simple thing, using templates as guides to blend the curves into an organic whole.  But is tougher than it seems.  Like playing in tune, there are a multitude of ways to fail, and only one way get it right.  I believe arching is one of the 3 keys to great tone and consequently give a great deal of attention to do it as well as I possibly can.

Visitors who see this process often kid me about the wax on - wax off scene from The Karate Kid, but they are not far from the truth.  Finding that one right shape takes thousands and thousands of cuts with progressively finer tools; chunks with gouges, then shavings with small planes, finally using scrapers to a finish.  It takes many hours of work, and part of the process is pausing to rest and check it over with fresh eyes before moving on to the next step.  The time passes quickly though, and I find myself in a meditative trance about how I hope to sculpt the sound of this piece of wood.  

No two pieces of wood are alike, even out of the same tree, and the art of this task is to feel the wood under the thousands of cuts and understand what kind of sound will best work with the nature of this piece of wood.  The backs are of maple, and some pieces of maple are like granite, or ice, or hard rubber, or hard cheese, or Bakelite.  Sometimes the wood feels stringy like a carrot, grainy like sandy soil, as crisp and tender as an apple or silky and smooth.   The wood speaks and I try to listen, and the most successful instruments invariably seem to be the ones that give me a great deal of difficulty before I find a satisfactory solution.  This, I believe is a pretty widespread phenomenon in the arts, and one of the more annoying aspects of the life.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Beauty of Violin Archings

My harpoon.   Normal gouge and pencil show scale.
Carving an arching from a solid piece of maple starts out as a very physical job.  I have always enjoyed the challenge of removing wood in large chunks of wood with a big gouge, and the thrill of danger adds to the experience.  The gouge is mounted on a heavy 20 inch handle of solid steel, the weight and momentum helping me do the work.  And an awareness of the damage that 6 pounds of steel ending in a razor-sharp edge could do in a careless moment to the instrument - or me- is a constant companion.

"Call me Ishmael" always pops into my head when I unpack this harpoon from its resting place.  It has no other use than in rough arching and I like to fancy Queequeg hefting it and considering it thoughtfully.   It dwarfs every other carving tool in my shop and I love using it, despite its ungainly square handle.  It was meant to be a temporary experiment, replaced with a rounded handle, but I grew fond of its oddness.

I never start quickly with this tool, starting with tentative nibbling at the maple.  Soon enough I find myself in tune with it once again, and am able to make large bold cuts of great precision and delicacy.  This is deeply satisfying. 

Making a blank slab of hard wood into an instrument that will sing for hundreds of years to come is a delightful idea, yet to me something more elemental is happening at this stage of the work.  There is an earthy relish to hewing away confidently at the untamed material, outlining the shape which later will be refined into the flowing grace of a beautiful arching.  Before I wish it, the moment comes when I must switch to a smaller gouge and small planes to refine the shapes which have been sketched out.

Regular arching gouge and palm plane to refine arch.